Saturday, August 23, 2008

Intimations of Regionalism

Before you go any further read this story at Night Train: The Tree That Girdles Itself by Donna D. Vitucci. It has nothing to do with this blog post, but it might have something to do with a future blog post. Stay tuned and expect a test.

me in the workshop preparing my mobile housing unit

As people, as writers, when we present our faces to the world we often feel a need to fashion neat little simplified boxes in which to portray ourselves as something less than the complexity that we are… otherwise folks just feel a need to jump up running and screaming?

A fellow writer that I have been paying attention to recently opened a blog where he expresses that his growing up is from Northern Appalachia to which he assigns Tioga County, PA. Fried Chicken and Coffee.

So, often, particularly online in an e-zine, when you read a story there will be somewhere attached a small biographical snippet about the writer. These can either be literal and nearly true, or as false and misleading as anything Mark Twain would pretend in a lie. In my case, with my writer’s persona I pretend to be from Northern Appalachia… in fact I am from Tompkins County, NY which is the northernmost county in Appalachia (I checked with my geographer friend on this). I claim this origination despite my having fled that scene more than thirty years ago for the adventure of first Washington, DC and then NYC and now these past nearly 20 years commuting across Long Island from pseudo-rural south shore along the Atlantic to mega-urban workzone of the 5 Boroughs.

That said, Tompkins County is a schizoid place in comparison to 99.99% of the remainder of what is known as Appalachia, either Southern or Northern, and up until my friend placed his blog FLAG squarely in the Northern Appalachian geography I had sort of imagined to myself that nobody knows what Northern Appalachia is about as a culture and therefore it was, at least for me, fresh meat to barbie. But hold on here…

The reason Tompkins County is schizoid is that it has Cornell, an Ivy League University, as a sort of oasis in the midst of rolling hills with Cayuga Lake as an added bonus. Not to mention Ithaca College and the media studies or the amazing proliferation of music in the zone. So you have Ithaca as the predominant city of the county, and you have Cornell where there is this mass of buildings, but also a mass of human brain matter refined to a very high scale. Some of it is yearning to escape planet earth, some of it is yearning to get lost in the woods and some of it goes sailing on Sunday. The place has poetry, it has literature, and it had Nabokov, AR Ammons (the man needs an enema) etc. Ginsberg liked to read there and Kerouac shopped at the Brahman Bookstore. Madame Blavatsky even made visits to the town, and there have been many many writers brought up, exaggerated and spit out by the region. So to describe Northern Appalachia as a shed with a wood stove, sour mash and dueling banjoes just does not quite work for me, alone, I mean, there needs to be this radical contrast between the culture of totally geeked out brains and cabbage farmers or UFO nuts or rabbit hunting or the big yearly drug bust.

So I remember in the 70s you could go to town and watch Gary Snyder give a reading. You could meet other local poets and have arguments about who lost the post office box key. There was not hardly any book a poet would want to buy that you could not find in the local new or used bookstores. Get in the truck and drive up to Buffalo to wonder why Gary Snyder was drunk on his ass in midafternoon. Wander down to Binghamton to hob nob with Gil Williams at an open reading he sponsored. Drive through a blizzard to sit in a sweaty room with Robert Bly banging a drum. Or a quick cut up to Syracuse for a bit of Samizdat on the Syracuse University student radio station at 3 am. And it was called, proudly we called it, regionalism.

At the time Regionalism was like it was this new thing that we pushed around to claim our identity. A lot of good that it did. The most prolific example of product that I remember was a young woman that wrote a chapbook of poems about raccoons that centered on her emotional attachment to how cute their little black masked faces looked.

When I moved down to Maryland outside of DC I took advantage to spend days off at the Library of Congress. What I found out was that I could ask to see old books there and I went a bit wild asking for all of the books I could find from Central New York writers as far back as they would go with it. I found a lot more of them than I ever found at home (Brooktondale and/or Besemer to be exact, not all that far from Bullamanka).

There is a whole lot that happened in the Central NY region in the 19th century as far as writing went, and religion, and a whole lot of poetry. It was not only the basket birthing of the Women’s Movement that went on there. Catching on to this wealth of historic poetry, and picking up a bit on the rhythms of those agrarian tendencies toward empyrean heights of cornseed epiphany I approached my friend John Gill (then in Trumansburg with Crossing Press) and suggested to him an anthology of this older poetry. His comment was that it was bad poetry then, it is bad poetry now. At the time I took him at his word.

It is pretty bad poetry, but in lingering on the topic of regionalism I think there is some importance to our claim of a place as attached to our identity as either a human, or as a writer, or as any sort of artist that we have an historical consciousness of what that place has meant to be to the larger remaining portion of the world in the past. If that historic literature/art, despite it being bad, is inaccessible to us then we have no clue as to what the larger whole is of what we claim as our regional identity.

All this when brought together I suspect that I need to claim a different piece of outer space as it is that I see all those people from south of my spiritual center are so outlandishly staid in their back country hill and holler ways. I would almost rather be from Ohio.